Opening Statement to the 64rd Meeting of the International Whaling Commission July 2012
As a whale and dolphin watcher’s paradise, Panama is the ideal host for the 64rd annual meeting
of the International Whaling Commission. In the warm Pacific waters just a handful of miles off
its western coast, humpback whales breach and frolic in an area that has long been a primary
breeding ground for thirty different species of cetaceans. On the Caribbean side, on the border
with Costa Rica, dolphins live year-round in the shallow, biodiverse waters in the archipelago of
Bocas del Toro. Together, these whale and dolphin species are part of the magic that draws
people of all nations to the Puente del Mundo, “the bridge of the world,” and they make Panama
a welcome and inspiring venue for the IWC’s deliberations.
IWC 64 in Panama City follows closely upon the launch at Rio+20 of GEO-5, the Global
Environmental Report of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Remarkably, GEO-
5 explicitly recognizes and celebrates the IWC as one of a handful of international organizations
that have, over time, developed a higher purpose in accordance with changing attitudes. “The
International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), which originally aimed to
prevent the oversupply of whale products but turned into a key instrument of whale
conservation,”GEO-5 notes, “can stand as another example. The governance regime for whales
has contributed to more sustainable practices and a change in mindsets, allowing a transition
from predominantly consumptive exploitation of a natural resource (whaling) to nonconsumptive
use such as whale watching and related tourism.”
Undeniably, a certain difficulty in achieving harmony in the universe of nations within the IWC
persists. Some 35,000 whales have been taken by whalers in the years since 1986, when the IWC
adopted the commercial whaling moratorium, and there are IWC member nations that continue
to promote commercial whaling and international trade in the face of the many significant threats
to the well-being and survival of cetaceans.
Even so, this is but a small percentage of the number of whales taken in prior decades, and the
number of nations involved in commercial whaling and related international trade has decreased
significantly. Just as importantly, the world has changed so much in three decades, and as GEO-5
makes plain, the world expects so much more from the IWC. “The open oceans are a major
global commons and require effective international cooperation and governance,” GEO-5’s
authors relate, and comprising 71 percent of the earth’s surface, “the potential collapse of
oceanic ecosystems requires an integrated and ecosystem- based approach to ocean governance.”
It is against this daunting backdrop, rather than the comparatively minor if sincere differences
that divide some nations from others within this body, that the IWC must plan, claim, and secure
its future. It is a future in which the IWC plays a primary role in the health and protection of our
oceans, a future in which the body exerts greater leadership in respect to the raft of threats that
jeopardize all marine life, whether it be oil spills, radioactive contamination, entanglement in
fishing gear and marine debris, ship strikes, chemical and noise pollution, emerging diseases,
climate change or all of these cumulatively and synergistically.
In a real sense, the IWC embraced its future thirty years ago, in 1986, when it adopted the moratorium on commercial whaling, which history has judged as a bold and necessary, if difficult advance. Now, history waits for the IWC to act decisively for whale conservation and the preservation and health of ocean habits, by transcending the question of whaling and extending its role in relation to the myriad troubles that beset the world’s whales and their habitats.
Last year’s meeting in Jersey followed just a few months after the great tragedy that befell Japan in the form of the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and radiation release, a terrible blow to a proud and accomplished people. The year before that, in 2010, the IWC convened as the United States was engaged in a full-scale effort to contain the Deepwater Horizon spill, a tragic ocean-based catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, with terrible consequences for fisheries, livelihoods, tourism, and the habitat of hundreds of marine-based species, including whales and dolphins.
If there is a harbinger event that hangs over IWC 64, it is the massive die-off of nearly 900 dolphins along a long coastline of northern Peru just a few months ago. There, an unexplained mortality event of shocking scope has brought the fragility of life for marine mammals in the 21st century into stark relief, and in a certain way, set the stage for this year’s deliberations. It does so above all by reminding us that the future of the IWC, the future that has been the subject of so much discussion in recent years, beckons us with utmost urgency.